Wednesday, June 03, 2009

We Will Know #3: Lamar

NOTE: This is the third of three. It should have been posted first so that all of the notes made sense. But this is a blog with the word "backwards" in its title, so...what did you expect? Hey...I've written something again. The world should be...well...I'd like to think it should be thankful for that. But, perhaps I'm mistaken. Anyway...enjoy!

Lamar Odom is 6'10".

If he were 6'3", he would have been hailed as the best guard prospect of his generation.

But he's not 6'3". He's 6'10". on whatever memory you have of Tiny Archibald, Kenny Anderson or Stephon Marbury and imagine if those players were the size of a power forward instead of the size of a point guard.

You'd probably paint a picture of Magic Johnson. And you'd be right. To begin with. You'd be careful to shade it with a whole lot more athleticism, though. 'Cause, believe it or not, Lamar Odom has every inch of Magic Johnson's game, but he's FAR more (and it's not even close here) athletic than #32.

What he's never had is Earvin Johnson's head. Or his heart.

Which is the twin shame of Lamar Odom.

He is the most uniquely gifted player in a sport famous for the singularity of its players' athletic freakishness. Quite possibly, he is the most uniquely gifted player in the history of this sport. (On top of everything, he's a leftie for chrissakes!)

So, of this uniquely gifted player, what would any reasonable person expect?

All-Star. All-Pro. Championships. Hall of Fame.

Would you believe Lamar Odom--save for one All-Star appearance--has accomplished none of those things?

In his decade or so in the NBA, Lamar Odom has been the most perplexing player in the league. It is the only "most" that he has achieved thus far.

Yet, here he is. Preparing to play in his second consecutive NBA Finals. Positioned--almost as if by fate--as the most important player on the Lakers roster.

Because of his flexibility and the natural fluidity of his game, he provides an all-in-one solution for every problem posed by every player on Orlando's front line. Granted, he's not going to guard more than one guy at a time, but he could guard any one of them at any time. On the other side of the ball, none of those players--when Lamar's game is on--can guard him.

But is Lamar's game going to be on?

We really have no idea. And we'ver never had any idea about his game either.

We've known about some of his off-court episodes.

The recruiting mishaps that had him committing to, like, 4 different schools before finally being allowed to enroll at Rhode Island. The drug violations that nearly prevented him from being eligible to play in the NBA.The trade out of LA. The trade back to LA. The death of his son. The launch of his clothing line. The sweet tooth that would make Willie Wonka sick.

But we've never known about his game.

We've never known whether we're going to get the 20-10-5 from him that he's given us during brilliant flashes. We've never known whether he's gonna pick up 2 fouls in the first 3 minutes of the game then spend his time sulking by the 3-point line launching shots even the Beastie Boys wouldn't advise.

We've never known what the hell we're gonna get from Lamar Odom. But we keep wanting to believe that he's gonna give us something transcendent. Because that is precisely what he is built for.

And, you would think, that's what the NBA Finals can bring out in a player.

You would think that. You would also think that Lamar Odom will be Lamar Odom.

Which is to say that you have no idea what he will be.

You will find out, though.

And you still won't know. Not exactly

We Will Know #2: Kobe

NOTE: This is #2 of 3 in a mini-series of craptacular musings on the NBA Finals. There was a tangent about Kobe restoring equilibrium to the business of professional basketball, but it was lost somewhere in the ether.

Kobe Bryant has three NBA Championship rings. He won all of them with Shaq. We know all about this.

He's also the guy who has become the inspiration for the generation of NBA superstars that followed him. Much like Micheal Jordan was.

Mike mesmerized all his little basketball-dunking brothers with what happened during the games. Most of them emulated the style of game his gifts enabled him to play, but very few took pains to understand the work that took place off the court to enable Mike to perform those daring feats on it. They wanted the reward and had no interest in the risk. Mike, more or less, encouraged that while his playing career remained active.

Kobe was one of the few to get it. He got all of it. He knew that everything that took place after the final buzzer sounded on one game, one season, one championship was just as important as all that would take place between the lines once the next buzzer sounded to signify the start of the next game, next season are supposed to bring home the championship, right? Where everyone else wanted to be like Mike, Kobe simply became Mike. Mostly.

In Mike's case, the generation that came after him was kept aloof on purpose. Mike didn't want them to learn his secrets because he didn't want them to beat him. And none of them did.

Kobe, on the other hand, almost needed all of his hoop siblings to know what he went through in order to be great. It was as if it weren't enough to satisfy his ego that they acknowledged him as a great player, he needed them to recognize him as an equally great preparer.

Probably because Kobe knew early on that he would never achieve Mike's exalted social status. Kobe doesn't have Mike's charisma. Nor does he have the benefit of landing on the NBA's moon first. Mike's flag was already there. But this is an aside.

This spring, we've heard so much about how Kobe's example during the Olympics inspired LeBron and Carmelo, among others. This is all true. There's no mistaking the difference in focus and preparation of the post-Kobe generation pre-Olympics and post-Olympics.

The result of Kobe sharing all--or nearly all--of his trade secrets has been that he's accidentally set himself up to be a Joe Frazier cutting stone for a generation of Muhammad Alis. Kobe has already bested two of the next generation's brightest hopes (D Will and 'Melo). Had the Cavs made the Finals, obviously, LeBron would have had the prime opportunity to get his Ali on. But he's didn't. D Howard has, though. And he's certainly playing like he thinks the crown fits him.

Most importantly, what each of those players has in common is that they're all entering their primes with a certain ferocity informing their play. To a great degree, they have Kobe to thank for that. And how will they thank him? By taking turns kicking the crap out of him every spring until Kobe retires? It's quite possible (particularly if you believe Bill Simmons) that this next series represents Kobe's last best hope to win a championship.

If that's the case and he loses, then how does history remember him? He won three championships. Sure. But he also lost three championships. How does that .500 record in the Finals inform his legacy?

If there's anyone on earth who ponders that question, it is Kobe Bryant. It has to be eating at him. It has to be driving him. It IS driving him. If you saw game 5 of the Nuggets series, that much is obvious.

Kobe is on the verge. Perhaps for the last time. Perhaps not. We really don't know. And neither does Kobe.

But we will know whether he'll snatch a fourth ring from history's jewelery box or not. And we will know that in 7 games or less.

We Will Know #1: Skip

NOTE: Somehow, a gchat with a my dear, PhD-having friend in Bloomington, IN turned into three semi-epic email messages from me regarding key subplots to the 2009 NBA Finals. Since I've not really been paying this thing any attention, I'm recycling those email messages. This is the first...

When basketball died in the mid-90s, it had a lot to do with the And1 phenomenon. Rafer Alston, then known to most as a HS PG/NYC Playground Legend called Skip to My Lou, was the face of And1. Eff that. He WAS And1.

He did some time in the NCAAs playing for Jerry Tarkanian's underachieving (yet thoroughly interesting) Fresno State teams circa 1997. He was drafted with some ceremony by...I don't remember who...then proceeded to bounce around the NBA carrying with him a reputation for being a servicable NBA PG who could make your team interesting, but it was long thought that he would never evolve into a championship calibre-player. In large part because he was still a fragile showboat.

Last year, with Houston, he showed signs that he might finally be ready for prime time. That the kid so many backpackers jizzed in their pants over way back in '95ish had finally grown into a real-ass NBA baller.

Fast forward to Jan '09. Orlando is on the verge of doing big things. Their starting PG, Jameer Nelson, goes down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Nelson is the classic up-by-your-bootstraps story who has made a career out of overachieving. He also served as the heart of the franchise. The season--it was thought--was over. Even a trade for a decent player to fill in would probably not offer the potential that Nelson's healthy presence would have.

Yet, here comes Rafer Alston via trade, or Skip as some still like to call him. He does more than a serviceable job. More importantly, he provides exactly what is needed exactly when it is needed during the Magic's journey through the play-offs.

It's a brilliant redemption story. And it brings to mind the speech from the closing scene of Rocky IV, "If they can change, and I can change, maybe we all can change..."

The idea here being that maybe all the so-called ills of the mid-90s streetball scene weren't so bad after all. Maybe they helped set the stage for the basketball we see being played today. By everyone from whatever NCAA team John Calipari is coaching to the 2009 Eastern Conference champions.

Without Skip...maybe there's no Steve Nash. And without Nash...well, there's certainly no NBA as we know it today.

So here's Skip's moment. And...wouldn't you know it...Jameer Nelson is talking about making a premature comeback. If he does, that's gonna eat into Skip's moment. How will he handle it? Has he really grown from the volatile schoolyards that birthed him into a mature leader? Or is he still that rascally showboat who burned up the heads of so many VCRs by his sheer virtuosity with a basketball?

We don't know yet. But we will.